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Early Witchcraft: It’s Not What You Think

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Picture it: It is the turn of the 17th century (1600’s) and you are in a bustling market in England. There in the open, boldly advertised, are merchants peddling spells, potions, and other magical services. The blacksmith selling you new horseshoes offers you a talisman against evil while his wife gives you a love potion. The baker worked spells into his goods. Not what you expected? Is this a fantasy story? Alternate universe? No. This is a trip to the past and we have been misled, hoodwinked, bamboozled! Existing side by side with the witch hunts in Europe, practitioners of “Folk magic” openly advertised their services. Furthermore, members of the community regularly sought out these wise men and women for medical services, legal reprieve, and blessings. Men became known as “wizards” while women became called “white witches”.

The Cunning Folk

Inhabitants of rural villages lived without proper medical assistance, legal avenues, or ways to earn a living outside of agriculture. In this aspect, they consulted cunning folk (wise person) in times of trouble. The village wise women and men delivered babies, concocted healing potions, resolved issues within the community and even cast spells for fair weather. The cunning folk used the innate properties within plants and objects to concoct magical solutions for everyday troubles. Today, this form of magic is lumped under the umbrella term of Witchcraft, like most other forms of magic. However, magic served a vital purpose in society during this time. And it cannot be ignored that such a trade was both well respected and profitable.

The Wicked Witch

Let’s unpack this a little bit. Witchcraft, contrary to other forms of magic, people considered inherently malicious. To the people of England during the 1500’s-1600’s, magic practiced with the sole intention of causing harm was the root of witchcraft. During the 16th century, it was commonly believed that witchcraft, as opposed to God's will, was a far more convincing explanation of unexpected and surprising misfortune, including the death of a loved one, failed harvests, or the disease or death of livestock. As such, witch-hunting became a preoccupation in some parts of England. During this time, books upon the art of Witchcraft, fueled the witch-hunting fervor, while others attempted to calm the fear. King James VI of Scotland published Daemonologie in 1597. Published in England in 1603 upon James’s ascension to the English throne. The book reflected James’s belief in witchcraft and magic and sought to prove the existence of magical forces, as well as dictate the manner of punishment appropriate for practitioners. According to the king, the correct punishment was death.

The Verse that Started the Fire

Please allow me to elaborate on a fine point right here. All this propaganda came from one verse of the bible “Do not suffer a witch to live.” But scholars have drawn into question the translation of the Hebrew word “mekhashepha” as meaning witch, yet as early as 1584 Reginald Scot pointed out the word meant “ancient poisoners,” and therefore should be translated to mean “herbalist” or “poisoner.” Modern scholars support this observation as well. To unpack just a little bit more: it can not be ignored that the charges levied against witches during this time were parallel with those levied against heretics a few centuries earlier. Modern historians point out that the idea of the Witches Sabbath during the Early Modern period remained an evolution of old illusions about earlier dissenting groups such as those who disagreed with and broke away from the Catholic Church. Don’t forget, this was also the time of the Protestant Reformation, and many people left the Catholic church in favor of Protestantism.

Witches and Wizards

Feminist parties have adopted the witch and the term witch hunt as icons in the fight against the patriarchy. Sorry ladies, magic and witchcraft was gender neutral. Go ahead, clutch your pearls, and get over your vapors before reading ahead. Here’s the deal, the past few centuries of scholars have largely ignored the evidence of male witches. John Dee was Queen Elizabeth I’s personal magical advisor on all matters of state. He even wrote a book about Enochian magic! A man by the name of Edmund Hartley was tried in a court of law for the use of malevolent magic against the Starkie family. Other notable cunning men are William Lillie, Simon Forman, and Elias Ashmole. Many more nameless men practiced magic during this time. Many also died as witches. Unfortunately, these accounts have been ignored in favor of those regarding women. As of right now, according to available and examined records, it is accurate that more women were executed as witches than men. However, historian, Alan Macfarlane has indicated that, according to his research, there were at least forty-one men who lived in Essex and acted as cunning folk. However, he also noted, information on cunning folk is difficult to obtain as commonly, people did not report them, as they felt they were doing good. Therein lies the crux of the situation. When a client is displeased, then a practitioner of magic is reported as a witch and in some areas of Europe, more men than women were accused of malevolent witchcraft.

The Witch’s Grimoire

If you have a cookbook in your kitchen, guess what, you’ve got a grimoire! Today a grimoire is thought of as a collection of spells, but back then, it was a collection of recipes, home remedies, and practical tips passed down from mother to daughters. Pretty innocent huh? Also, women were considered healers. When you’re sick, do you want your mom? Did she make you chicken soup? Witch! Historically, cunning women were adept midwives within their sphere of healing. By offering their healing services for a reasonable price, cunning women especially, were regarded as a viable alternative to an expensive physician. It has been argued that women’s process of finding medical cures influenced the development of science. I should also add that male physicians of the time admit that their medicines and techniques were taken directly from their mother’s grimoires. A magical cure for boils included egg shells, sulfur, and a binding agent like lard. It was to be rubbed upon a boil while chanting. To break this down, the egg shell cut open the boil and the sulfur worked as a healing agent. The words or prayers of the chant were a time keeper. Think singing your ABC’s while washing your hands. Not so mysterious now.

There is a Witch in Us All

Magic: the ability to influence events through the use of mysterious or supernatural forces. Today, most people regard the belief in magic as the result of an uneducated and superstitious mind, at best, and the work of evil forces (still) at worst. However, all over the world humans brew potions from beans or dead leaves to make themselves more alert, rely upon daily weather predictions, and believe that picking up a found penny while chanting will bring good luck throughout the day. Magic has been part of the human experience in daily life for a millennium. It remains intricately linked to the human experience. Just as in the Early Modern Period, some men and women still make their livings through practicing magical arts and have even attained celebrity status in some cases. Folk magic, or cunning, was a traditional form of magical practice surviving for centuries. Both cunning men and cunning women were well respected within their communities and their magical arts benefitted their clients.

**Thank you for reading. This was taken from my master’s thesis on Cunning Folk. Please feel free to comment and keep the discussion going.

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